Philip Metres, “Recipe from the Abbasid”

sand-opera-cover

A common poetry classroom assignment is to write a “how to” poem, explaining some activity or recipe. It’s often a fruitful exercise because it forces us to pay close attention to detail, and invites us to think metaphorically about something mundane (“How to Tie a Knot” or “How to Draw a Perfect Circle“), or to think concretely about something more metaphoric or abstract (“How to Judge” or “How to Continue”). Here Philip Metres draws on a recipe found in Nawal Nasrallah’s Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine, which you can find out more about here. But aspiring chefs should probably go back to Nasrallah’s original text before attempting to feed their families – Metres has made some rather unappetizing alterations… Here’s the poem:

 

“Recipe from the Abbasid”

 

Skin & clean a fat, young sheep & open it

like a door, a port city hosting overseas guests

 

& remove its stomach. In its interior, place

surveyors in exploratory khakhi, a stuffed goose

 

& in the goose’s belly, a stuffed hen, & in the hen,

machine gun nests, C rations, grenades, a stuffed

 

pigeon, & in the pigeon’ belly, a stuffed thrush,

& in the thrush’s belly, contractual negotiations

 

& subtle threats, all sprinkled with sauce. Sew the slit

into a smile, dispatch handshakes. Add Chevron,

 

Exxon, Texaco, Shell. Place the sheep in the oven

& leave until this black slimy stuff, excretion

 

of the earth’s body, is crispy on the outside,

& ready for presentation.

 

— from Sand Opera (Alice James Books 2015), used by permission

 

I should mention before I dive in that Sand Opera includes poems that are much more wide-ranging and experimental than the one reproduced here. The first section, “abu ghraib arias,” is a mournful reexamination of the treatment of prisoners by United States servicemen and -women at the notorious prison of the title and at Guantanamo Bay, and includes text from a Standing Operating Procedure handbook, moving testimony from both Americans and former prisoners (some of it blacked out or partly erased), and texts from the Bible and the Code of Hammurabi. Other sections deal with Metres’ own conflicts between his American upbringing and his Arab heritage, and sometimes include such strange additional material as a floor map of a prison cell and a reproduction of Saddam Hussein’s fingerprints. All of this, especially as it accumulates, has a lot of impact, and there’s more to say about it all, but given the limits of my enterprise here, I thought it best to focus on something that can stand alone for readers. Please do go and check the book out further, though, because the collection feels particularly relevant today.

The metaphoric language being used as the poem begins appears at first to be in the service of vivid description– we are to open the sheep’s skin “like a door,” or perhaps like “a port city.” These similes might be a bit elaborate for a standard cookbook, but given the medieval source (more on the Abbasids shortly), and the fact that we know we’re reading a poetic rendering of the recipe, perhaps we should expect such leaps of language. I speak from experience when I say that over-thinking the correlation between a sheep’s internal organs and the structure of a port city is more fanciful than clarifying, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

Soon, though, we are instructed to insert “surveyors in exploratory khakhi” into the interior of the sheep, and our metaphor-making has to change direction. For a brief amusing instant I admit I wondered if this was some culinary idiom – if we can make “pigs in a blanket” or a chow mein noodle “bird’s nest,” why not “surveyors in khakhi”? But it doesn’t hold up and we realize that it’s the sheep, rather than the stuffing, that is becoming the metaphoric vehicle. We speed through historical tag-marks that point to European colonial rule (surveyors) to the Second World War (C rations and machine gun nests), and eventually to more modern representations of the “West”: “contractual negotiations & subtle threats.” All of this is clever enough for us to wonder what it is we are cooking, and we sense the ironic anger simmering under the veneer of hospitality. But this poem isn’t merely an anti-colonialist screed; in fact it contains a much more far-reaching and complex critique of power and wealth.

The Abbasid Caliphate, based mostly in Baghdad, ruled a large section of what we now call “the Middle East” from roughly 750 CE until the 1500s, and presided over what historians now often refer to as the Golden Age of Islam. From the development of algebra to The Book of a Thousand and One Nights, the Abbasids were the epitome of an advanced civilization. Only a culture with significant wealth and expertise could conceive of a recipe that includes (if we stick to the edible parts) a thrush inside a pigeon inside a chicken inside a goose inside a sheep. (It makes John Madden’s turducken puny in camparison!) On the one hand, it’s glorious. On the other, it’s absurd. And knowing how luxury has usually been built on the subjugation of others, it is easy to surmise that few in the Caliphate would have had access to the kind of delicacy referred to in this poem. The final line of the poem, “& ready for presentation,” makes it clear that we who are cooking this fabulous meal are probably not going to partake in it.

One of the secrets to the Abbasid’s success was its openness to the influence of other nations – particularly from Persia, but also China and elsewhere, east and west. So the lines “Sew the slit / into a smile, dispatch handshakes” seems to point the finger not just at the colonial power-brokers from elsewhere who exploited the region, but also at those who have been complicit in those efforts, welcoming them with traditional hospitality on the one hand, but an eye toward personal gain on the other.

So while the poem invites a familiar reaction against oil companies like Exxon and Shell, a closer reading reveals that rather than some sort of historical aberration, these corporations are merely the most recent in a series of powerful forces that have always exploited the region and its people, contributing to the suffering that in this poem is in the margins (although it takes center stage elsewhere in Sand Opera) but also patronizing the craftsmen, artists, and scientists whose achievements might appear in a 21st century recipe book. Can we create luxury without oppression? Will it be ever thus? How much more must we shove into that pathetic, accommodating sheep?

One final note regarding tone. A recipe tends to be written in the imperative case: do this, mix that, bake for 45 minutes. When we read these instructions we rarely find ourselves opposing them – “What do you mean I should pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees?!” But by the end of this poem, I find myself cultivating a kind of internal resistance, not just to the recipe itself (“No, I’d rather not add Chevron to my roast thanks”) but to the whole enterprise the recipe now refers to. Of course, the poem doesn’t provide an answer for how to separate the seemingly inextricable pairing of luxury and oppression. But by calling our attention to it, Metres encourages us to imagine a different recipe altogether that will feed everyone with generosity and taste.

 

Natalia Toledo, “Flower That Drops Its Petals”

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If you are going to build a homemade hand grenade, you’d better do everything exactly right. Better not to do it all than to do it imperfectly. Most things aren’t like that, though. Good translation necessitates a compromise between the demands of the original poem, and the demands of its new language. There are always changes, losses, compromises. But just because there’s no such thing as a perfect translation doesn’t make the efforts of translators pointless. On the contrary, the effort to bring a poem into a new language can add to the readership of a fine poet, but also create something entirely original in its new linguistic home. Frost once quipped, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” but that may just be because he didn’t do much translating himself. He certainly read his fair share of translations, with pretty decent results.

Natalia Toledo is a well-known Mexican poet who writes in Zapotec, a language spoken by roughly half a million people, mostly in southwestern Mexico. There are plenty of resources online to learn about the history and grammar of Zapotec, as well as some of the efforts attempting to preserve it. But if you just want a quick taste of what it sounds like, you can hear some here, including two poems in the voice of Toledo herself.

Toledo translates the poems into Spanish, and in 2015 Phoneme Media published a book of Clare Sullivan’s translations into English which includes Toledo’s original Zapotec as well as the Spanish versions. (It’s a beautifully made book, by the way — read it one way to see the Zapotec and English, then turn it upside down to see the Zapotec against the Spanish.) Sullivan has the good fortune to be able to consult with Toledo herself about the poems, but they are still translations of translations, and so we are always seeing them through an opaque gauze, trying to fathom the nuances we are missing. For those of us who can’t read or speak Zapotec, we must ultimately approach the poems as poems in English, echoing or reflecting Toledo’s intentions rather than mirroring them exactly. The reflection will be warped, but if our translator does well, then the warped reflection will have its own beauty, intention, and meaning. So let’s have a look:

 

Flower that Drops Its Petals

 

I will not die from absence.

A hummingbird pinched the eye of my flower

my heart mourns and shivers

and does not breathe.

My wings tremble like the long-billed curlew

when he foretells the sun and the rain.

I will not die from absence, I tell myself.

A melody bows down upon the throne of my sadness,

an ocean springs from my stone of origin.

I write in Zapotec to ignore the syntax of pain,

ask the sky and its fire

to give me back my happiness.

Paper butterfly that sustains me:

why did you turn your back upon the star

that knotted your navel?

 

— from The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems (Phoneme Media 2015), used by permission of the publisher

One of the things I love about this poem is the mix of the strange and the familiar, and how Toledo brings us along from one to the other. The lyrical tone of the speaker at the beginning (“I will not die from absence”) is firmly in the romantic tradition – my first reading assumed the “absence” that she refuses to die from is the absence of a lover, and I don’t think that reading is ever fully dispelled, although other more complicated readings are added to it. So as a reader I begin with recognition.

The other familiar tactic in the opening lines is the reliance on the natural world to illustrate the speaker’s distress – “a hummingbird pinched the eye of my flower” is not an image I’ve encountered before, but the precision of the description, wild as it is, makes a kind of poetic sense to me. I’m not exactly sure what “the eye of my flower” is either, but with “my heart” in the next line, I can make an educated guess. Or to be more exact, I’m comfortable being in the vicinity of knowing what she means.

But things gradually get stranger as we move through the poem. I know what a curlew is (think of a sandpiper, with a long, curved, thin bill), but the idea that curlews somehow foretell sun and rain is new and odd, and I’m beginning to wonder if the speaker’s “wings tremble[ing]” is such a bad thing. The references to the creatures in the speaker’s home landscape are not only illustrating her distress, they seem to be providing her with the tools to resist it. So, after the repetition of “I will not die from absence,” my sense is that “a melody bows down upon my throne of sadness” seems to be a positive development, as does “an ocean springs from my stone of origin.” The way I read it, the power and fecundity of the ocean is going to help her fight off that potentially lethal absence.

By the way, here’s something I often catch in English translations of Romantic languages – the frequent use of the construction “the XX of XX.” In the tiny bit of Spanish I know, and a bit more in French, the words del, de, de la, du are so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, the way we don’t notice if the word “the” occurs a lot in an English sentence. In English we tend to notice that construction after a few instances, so that “eye of my flower,” “throne of sadness,” “stone of origin,” and “syntax of pain” call attention to themselves a bit as Toledo’s imagistic technique. I sympathize with Sullivan’s challenges as a translator here, tbough, because if you replaced those phrases with “flower eye,” “sadness throne,” or “origin stone,” it would sound a bit too clipped, brutal, abrupt or for the lyric tone of the poem. But I thought I’d point it out as an interesting way that bringing a language into English presents the translator with unique difficulties. I suspect this wouldn’t be true with, say, a translation from Spanish to French.

Meanwhile I want to know more about this “stone of origin.” Because if an ocean springs from it, it’s clearly a source of bounty and assurance for our speaker. The mention of Zapotec in the next line supports the growing sense I have that this poem isn’t really about romantic heartbreak, but rather about cultural alienation. Why is writing in Zapotec a way “to ignore the syntax of pain”? Knowing that Toledo also speaks and writes in Spanish, we can deduce that Spanish has a painful syntax for her, no doubt partly because of the history of oppression and violence that speakers of Zapotec faced (and continue to face) in the language, laws, and sentences of Spanish. But the idea that the very syntax of Spanish is painful is more profound, because we ourselves are reading the poem via a Spanish translation that Toledo herself wrote. And we can imagine that Spanish syntax has infiltrated into her own mind and mouth. She is a contorted person, in pain in the syntax of Spanish, which nevertheless she must use in order for us to understand her.

But Toledo’s speaker refuses to perish under this, and because she has access to her native language, her declaration (in Spanish, and then in English) that she writes in Zapotec seems to be a way of explaining herself to outsiders like us, but also a way to work her way back to a language in which she can pray to “the sky and its fire” for happiness. Even through the double-gauze of two translations, we sense that the phrase that Sullivan has interpreted as “the sky and its fire” is likely a traditional one in Zapotec, perhaps with religious connotations. If her life in the broader world has forced her into a syntax of pain, this poem – and the others written in her first language – are her way back to the spiritual sources of her power and happiness.

The last sentence is mystifying in a way that delights me. The poem addresses some version of what we might call the speaker’s soul, metaphorized as a “paper butterfly.” But what is this paper butterfly? Is it a species of insect familiar to the region, or a reference to origami, a practice that must have been imported? And while the admonishment that she should not have turned her back on her star/heritage is one I’ve seen in other contexts, the image that illustrates it is again deceptively cross-cultural. “The star / that knotted your navel” seems to refer to both pre-Christian religious beliefs but also to more recent scientific discoveries about our origins in stardust. By reclaiming Zapotec, Toledo seems better able to live in and understand both the ancient and modern worlds.

Here I also want to give credit to Clare Sullivan for summoning the wonderful phrase “knotted your navel,” which feels like a new way to illustrate a birth metaphor that is cultural more than it is biological. It also has a wonderful bit of alliterative music that is not in the Spanish (“que anudaba tu ombligo”) but which I sense is there in the original: “beleguí biliibine xquípilu’.” You don’t have to be able to know how to pronounce that phrase to see all of the b’s, l’s and i’s playing off each other. So we have Clare Sullivan to thank for giving us a sense in English of what it might sound like for a Zapotec speaker to return to her language and culture in a way that will in turn help her face the rest of the world. It’s a gift that is only possible in translation.

 

Cassidy McFadzean, “You Be the Skipper, I’ll Be the Sea”

hacker-packer-cover

 

“You Be the Skipper, I’ll Be the Sea”

 

This time of year, Agamemnon’s

tomb is swarming with Beliebers.

If I was your boyfriend, Clytemnestra…

What’s the theme of this one, teacher?

 

We raised our iPhones in the dark

like gold-leaf masked talismans.

Our ringtones were a Greek chorus

calling from the hive to lion guards.

 

I’m a novel with the pages uncut.

Someone flipped me open and had enough.

Now reading me rips me in two.

What’s a poem for? What’s it to you?

 

Whoever said size don’t matter lied.

The shaft of the cistern in the hillside

had me on my hands and knees.

I lapped up clay with my teeth.

 

We were catamarans in my last fantasy,

skipped in this world like a stone over sea.

You stole me away from the treasury.

Freedom, Siri, was a machine.

 

— from Hacker Packer (McClelland and Stewart, 2015), used by permission

Cassidy McFadzean’s shimmering debut Hacker Packer dances between scholarly travelogue and a skewed but loving embrace of popular culture. Underneath the playfulness, however, there are more serious matters at stake. It’s easy to get distracted by the fun, but in “You Be the Skipper, I’ll Be the Sea,” the speaker has some serious concerns about love, power, and the imagination.

The poem finds us at Agamemnon’s Tomb among the ruins of Mycenae, taking in a scene with the incongruous combination of guide-book information and contemporary technological accouterments common to tour groups (I don’t need to explain that Beliebers are those fans who believe, with a perfect faith, in Justin Bieber, right?). McFadzean blurs the two influences on her experience so that Justin Bieber’s seduction song is directed at Clytemnestra and the gathering of tourists becomes something like the fans at a concert, holding up their iPhones in an act that feels more about worship than it is about light.

Some brief background: in Greek mythology and literature, Agamemnon is one of the kings enlisted to help return Helen from Troy. He assembles his fleet but for days there’s no wind. A priest finally tells Agamemnon that he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to get things moving and he does so. Ten years (and many adventures) later, Agamemnon returns home (with treasure that includes the Trojan priestess Cassandra as a concubine), but his wife Clytemnestra has not forgiven him and, with her new lover Aegisthus, kills Agamemnon in the bath.

So if Justin is singing to Clytemnestra, is it in the voice of Aegisthus, pledging to treat her (and their offspring) better than her husband did? Or is it in the voice of a younger Agamemnon, making promises he will not keep? Either way, it’s unclear if our speaker approves. The last line of the stanza, “What’s the theme of this one, teacher?” suggests that like us she’s trying to figure out what this combination of impressions signifies. And who is this teacher? Is it a question for a tour guide? A playful wink to her travel companion? Or a recognition of us as readers, hovering over her shoulder, tempted to educate her?

Some further background, lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “If I Was Your Boyfriend”:

          If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go,

          I can take you places you ain’t never been before,

          Baby, take a chance or you’ll never ever know,

          I got money in my hands that I’d really like to blow,

          swag swag swag on you

 

Or if you prefer, see the video for the song here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GuqB1BQVr4

You might also be aware that Justin Bieber, famous since childhood for his sweet voice and man-boy persona, has more recently run into trouble for some of his more outrageous antics, including vandalismdangerous driving, and assault.

In other words, Bieber and Agamemnon have some things in common. They are both deeply flawed, larger-than-life male figures who attract our attention and admiration despite (and even partly because of) the wrongs they commit. Agamemnon’s military prowess and his loyalty to his male compatriots outweigh the damage he does to the women who rely on him. And Bieber’s physical attractiveness, wealth and fame outweigh his sophomoric destructive misdemeanors. Can we learn about the standards of masculinity in cultures from which these “heroes” emerge?

But back to the poem. In the second stanza McFadzean has some more fun conflating the contemporary worship of a celebrity like Justin to the worship of a warrior king like Agamemnon. iPhones like talismans, ring tones like a chorus. In the hands of a lesser poet, this comparison, and the fun implications that can be made from it, would suffice. The poem would end there.

But out of nowhere the third stanza starts with what looks like another quotation – you could be forgiven for assuming, on first reading, that these three lines are more Bieber lyrics. But they’re much darker, and as far as I can tell, they’re not cut-and-pasted from any other source:

           I’m a novel with the pages uncut.

           Someone flipped me open and had enough.

           Now reading me rips me in two.

The references to a book with uncut pages puts us somewhere historically between Agamemnon and Bieber. And the imagery, as well as the near rhyme of uncut/enough evokes the kind of heartbreak (with implied sexual violence?) that romantic poets and songwriters use. Is the speaker of these italicized lines the same one who is now at Agamemnon’s Tomb? Or is she referring to some other story or poem? Either way it suggests that our tourist has turned her attention away from the attention-getting men and is thinking more about those who pay the price for their behavior. And the stanza’s closing line: “What’s a poem for? What’s it to you?” continues the train of thought that first emerged with “What’s the theme of this one, teacher?” The question of what impact the poem might have, and the challenge to an interpreting “you” (who, me?!) is now something close to defiance and resentment.

In the fourth and fifth stanza things are changing direction very quickly, and the sentences are disconnected, seeming to refer to a few things at once. Is the “size matters” comment really about ancient water systems? Is McFadzean using a phrase like “had me on my hands and knees” deliberately in order to evoke images of sexual submission, despite the fact that she seems to be referring literally to exploring the site? Is the fantasy of catamarans skipping over the sea connected to the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, or is it a romantic image of two lovers sailing together on their lives’ voyages? And most disturbingly, by admitting that “You stole me away from the treasury,” is the speaker connecting herself to Helen and Cassandra, to a legacy of sexual violence that persists even in contemporary pop lyrics?

The declaration at the end, “Freedom, Siri, is a machine,” feels like a final turn in the screw. On the one hand it seems to imply that the way to get freedom is to procure a machine. (Imagine an advertisement for Harley Davidson with that caption.) On the other hand, the sentence can also be read as a way of saying that “freedom” is merely another kind of machine, that it won’t necessarily protect us from the dangers present in the poem. The clincher of course is that it’s addressed to Siri, another semi-mythological machine with imperfect answers for our questions. Siri cannot provide us with companionship or love, nor will Siri leave an archeological footprint that tourists millennia from now might explore. Or has Siri been the companion we’ve been talking to all along?

We are left with a sense that McFadzean’s speaker is overwhelmed by the legacy of hero worship that can build magnificent tombs, launch global celebrity careers, and develop oracular technological tools, but cannot protect women from abduction or girls from their fathers. If she has a chance to find a way out it’s through her way of seeing the world that makes insightful connections between the disparate stimuli she encounters, and a shape-shifting, penetrating wit that has a reader delightfully off-balance throughout the poem.

Donna Stonecipher, “Model City [#4]”

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It was like seeing a fox one day right in the middle of the city – a real fox, not a taxidermied fox, nor a fox logo, nor a foxy person that one might want to sleep with.

*

It was like stopping and staring at the fox, along with all the other people walking down the street, all stopped in their tracks and staring in astonishment at the fox.

*

It was like watching the real, soft, cinnamon-colored fox, the only object moving in the landscape, moving silkily along the overgrown median, darting glances over at the people standing on the sidewalk, staring.

*

It was like the concentrated attention placed on the fox’s perplexing appearance deflected by the fox, who keeps moving down the street, headed to a fox den known only to the fox – dark, liquid, solvent.

— from Model City (Bristol: Shearsman 2015), used by permission

Donna Stonecipher’s Model City is a strange and wonderful book, with 72 poems that all look like the one above: four prose sections/stanzas/paragraphs, each beginning with “It was like…” At first they seem to be about inhabiting a “model city,” or “garden city” as they’re sometimes called, trying to explore the sensations one might have in the midst of planned architecture and street design. The utopian vision that is behind any model city – “if we plan this correctly everyone will be happy” – lends itself to all sorts of artificial weirdness, and so we can see how being inside those ideas might be ripe for poetic exploration.

But as the poems accumulate, it gets harder and harder to figure out what the “it” in “it was like” is really referring to. In his blurb for the book, Noah Eli Gordon calls it a “missing antecedent,” and in many of the poems the opening phrase seems less like an answer to the question, “What was traveling through the model city like?” and more like an answer to the question, “What was it like to be a human being in the early 21st century?” The answers the poems provide are not exactly logical, but they are still somehow clarifying.

Which is why the “It was like…” form works so well for me. Like a stutter, or a grasping at ideas, the speaker of these poems always seems on the verge of discovering what “it” was like, but can’t satisfy herself that she’s found the best simile for her mix of thoughts and feelings. In this way the poem, indeed the whole book, seems like an exploration, a series of attempts to reach out to us, her readers, to try to bridge the inevitable gap between one individual experience and another.

In this particular poem, these attempts all revolve around the appearance of a fox in a cityscape. It’s worth remembering that in a perfect “model city,” we probably wouldn’t see a real fox at all on any “overgrown meridian.” But in the first section what’s even more strange is that the speaker has to clarify what kind of fox we’re seeing: “not a taxidermied fox, nor a foxy logo, nor a foxy person one might want to sleep with.” Are we really likely to confuse these things with each other?! If we were there on the street, the clarification would be ridiculous. The only place where we might get confused is in a poem. It’s the first hint we have of Stonecipher’s efforts are self-consciously literary, an attempt to travel through the page to us, against the limits of language and misunderstanding.

The second stanza focuses on how the speaker feels connected to everyone around her who is similarly awestruck at the appearance of the animal. She goes from “stopping and staring” to noticing that everyone around her is also “stopped… and staring.” Even the artless repetition of the verbs seems a reflection of her dumbfounded-ness (“staring” will get used once more, in the following section). I find myself wondering if the speaker’s need to feel communal connection is partly a result of her being in a Model City. I’m no expert, but I sense that artificial constructions like model cities suppress organic, roughened, unpredictable experiences, and so the shared communal staring is a minor breakthrough that the speaker longs for in the same way she longs to break through the page to us.

By the third section the fox is the “only object moving in the landscape,” and in the poem. Notice that “it” is never actually compared to the fox itself – it was like seeing the fox, stopping and staring at the fox, watching the fox, and the attention placed on the fox. The poem, and the comparison – what “it” was like – is really about our experience of encountering the fox, together. “The attention placed” is singular, even though it’s a crowd of people who are focusing their various attentions on the creature, and that crowd now includes us too, who have spent four stanzas seeing, stopping and staring, watching, and placing our attention there.

Meanwhile the actual fox is beyond our efforts to associate with it. Our attention is “deflected” while it carries on with its business, eventually disappearing into its invisible home in the midst of our urban, urbane constructions – our city, our streets, and our poems. I love the last word here, “solvent,” which literally means “able to dissolve other substances.” At the beginning of the poem, the fox’s appearance (and Stonecipher’s poem about it) dissolves our individuality into a collective sense of awe. But at the end of the poem the den, by removing the object of our attention from the scene, dissolves our shared experience, dissolves the scene and the poem. We are returned to our singular selves.

So the poem ultimately seems to be concerned with the rich tension between our lonely, unique, individual existence, and the fleeting, self-dissolving, shared experience of an encounter with nature, or with art. The poem does not try to resolve that tension, only to articulate something about what it was like.

 

Oliver Bendorf, “Queer Facts About Vegetables”

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My reading for the Griffin Prize introduced me to a number of young trans poets who are pioneering new ways of thinking about gender and identity in poetry. They are very different from each other, and so I don’t want to make generalizations about what “trans poetry” might be, but I’m happy to be made newly aware of an emerging subculture in the literary world, one that offers new challenges, questions, and realms of experience. One of these poets is Oliver Bendorf, whose first collection, The Spectral Wilderness, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and was published by The Kent State University Press. Here’s a poem from that collection:

Queer Facts About Vegetables

            In 1893, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the tomato is a vegetable.

 

I know I am a nightshade,

it says to its own limp vine.

I know how to burst

 

against teeth

with my juice and seed.

I’m as small

 

as a thumbnail, no,

I’m as big as the harvest

fucking sun.

 

I’m fresh blood

on a small curled fist.

I can be a boy, I know,

 

but never a man.

I can be Sunday gravy

or a pickled green.

 

This is still the tomato

talking to the vine,

as told to me.

 

— from The Spectral Wilderness, published by The Kent State University Press, used by permission.

 

This poem gets me right from the epigraph. As a footnote points out, taxation was one of the primary motivations the Supreme Court had for deliberately mis-classifying tomatoes as vegetables in 1893. (If you’re curious, you can find out more about the case here or here.) The point is that classification is political, not just scientific or even practical. If this is true for fruits and vegetables, how much more so then is it for categories like “male” and “female”? In that context, it makes some sense that Bendorf would empathize with the subject of these legislative maneuvers. But the antic gumption of speaking in the voice of the tomato is what delights me.

So, ok then, Bendorf sets out to explore the identity of a tomato, overheard speaking “to its own limp vine.” Of course we know that it’s the invisible poet orchestrating this, and (especially given the title, and other poems in the collection) we can be forgiven if we read the poem on the hunt for some sort of allegorical representation of what it is to be queer, trans, or simply trapped in over-determined gender categories. Part of the fun Bendorf is having here is that he knows we’re over-reading the poem for insight into trans experience, and so he can toy with our trigger-happy metaphorizing impulses. He teases us with a line like “burst // against teeth / with my juice and seed,” which perhaps we’re tempted to read in a sexualized way but which seems to be, really, just about the tomato.

Meanwhile the tomato itself is not remotely interested in whether it is a fruit or a vegetable. Rather it declares itself to be a part of the nightshade family – a loosely defined scientific classification that includes a huge range of plants from chili peppers to eggplants to tobacco, and even to some toxic herbs like belladonna (deadly nightshade). Does the tomato claim membership in this arbitrarily defined identity group with any ambivalence? It doesn’t seem so. So if some categories fit more comfortably on us than others, the same seems true for the tomato.

The poem continues with the tomato recognizing some of its physical characteristics – it knows how it responds to being chewed, and understands (and exaggerates) its range of sizes, colors and shapes. Tonally also the poem is feeling its way around, starting with a more formal proclamation (“I know I am a nightshade”) and eventually breaking into the slangy-grandiose “I’m as big as the harvest / fucking sun.” It’s worth remembering that if this poem is about identity, the tomato is doing its best to answer our question. If someone were to ask, “Who are you?” how would any of us respond? We might very well assert these same sorts of family affiliations, physical characteristics, abilities and desires.

But the poem makes a crucial slip between the fourth and fifth stanzas: “I can be a boy, I know, // but never a man.” Could this really be the tomato speaking? In what way could a tomato be a boy but not a man?! It appears as though for a moment the strain of the metaphoric construction has split, and that the poet himself has fallen out of the game and into confession. But if that’s the case, then why can the poetic speaker only be a boy and not a man? How are we going to differentiate between these two categories? What changes a boy into a man? Is it puberty, reproductive capability? Psychological maturity? Self-awareness? If a trans person has grown up as a boy in a girl’s body, how will he understand himself shifting into a man’s body? The poem doesn’t offer clear answers, but it exposes an important question that complicates and deepens our understanding of the predicament of identity.

With the ending our poet recovers his composure, and shuts down the confession with an obvious lie: “This is still the tomato / talking to the vine, / as told to me.” Like an embarrassed interviewee who realizes that he has just revealed too much, the speaker ends the poem abruptly, without resolution, almost with an “asking for a friend.” But the raw confessional question – I can be a boy but can I be a man? – still hangs in the air, troubling, a bit confusing, and revealing of more searching to come.

 

“The Light I’ve Seen in Your Hair I Have Found in My Own Hands,” by Amber McMillan

we-cant-do-this-again-cover

Readers who are not comfortable with poetry tend to feel they don’t “get it,” partially because they’re looking for the kinds of answers that many poems refuse to provide. Another way of saying this is that poems tend to solve different kinds of mysteries than works of fiction do. Amber McMillan’s “The Light I’ve Seen in Your Hair I Have Found in My Own Hands” made me think about categories of mystery. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.

Here’s the poem:

 

The Light I’ve Seen in Your Hair I Have Found in My Own Hands

 

I still hear rumours about the dead fox

we found nailed backward and upside down

from the rafters of Jenny’s tool shed

at least three or more summers ago.

The rusted nailheads, its entry wounds,

were tucked from view beneath the slim

lip where the roof meets the open air.

It did not occur to me then we were stealing.

The jury-rig of the undiminished memory,

tripped up by emergency, is the steady

nursing of the conditional – the tedious

combinations of all possible outcomes.

That summer I told you no instead of almost.

I should have said very very close.

 

from We Can’t Ever Do This Again, (Buckrider Books 2015) used by permission

 

McMillan starts with a pretty clear description: a dead fox that the speaker and a companion discover grotesquely displayed in Jenny’s tool shed. The speaker’s attention gets close enough to the animal to pinpoint where the rusty nails have been hammered into place. Most readers wouldn’t say this part is confusing, but there are plenty of unanswered questions: who did this? Why? Was it an act of mischief or threat? How did the speaker feel about it, apart from fascination? And why is she still hearing rumours about the fox years later?

Some of these questions we might be able to figure out with some careful re-reading: the rumours are probably connected to the “who did this?” question, which apparently has not been answered. The fact that people are still talking about the event three-plus years later reminds us of what a singular, cruel act it was, but we already knew that from reading the description. The persistence of the rumours also lets us know that the speaker is still connected to it somehow.

But then things get a bit stranger. “It did not occur to me then we were stealing.” Does this imply that the speaker and her companion took the fox from its perch in the rafters? Is that what they were “stealing”? That would explain her attention to the nails in its fur. But why would this be considered stealing? Perhaps they did it without Jenny’s knowledge? Did Jenny mind? The situation, at first a bit dark, now seems downright weird. Poor Jenny and her tool shed!

(By the way, what’s the deal with poets and dismembered animals? This one reminded me of the decapitated goat in Bridget Pegeen Kelly’s terrific poem “Song,” but there’s also Elizabeth Bishop’s “Fish,” William Stafford’s deer in “Travelling Through the Dark,” Philip Levine’s pig in “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” Philip Larkin’s “Myxomatosis” – weird.)

All of this I would call “narrative mystery,” the confusion that we have when we’re trying to figure out just what’s going on in a poem or story. Novels and movies use this kind of mystery all the time, of course, to propel us through the action, and the eventual clarification of the mystery is one of fiction’s pleasures. In genres like detective fiction, you could argue it’s one of the chief pleasures. But a poem is under no obligation to solve narrative mystery – the uncomfortable situation with the fox hanging in the shed, and what the speaker did with it, is dropped, because it turns out the fox is only a trigger in the poem for a different subject altogether.

I’m going to skip the next sentence for a minute and go straight to the end. “That summer I told you no instead of almost. / I should have said very very close.” To a certain extent, we suddenly understand why the speaker has brought up this memory: she’s re-thinking her relationship to “you,” the person being addressed in the final couplet, who must have been with the speaker when she discovered the fox.

But now we’re back to mystery: WHAT should she have said “almost” or “very very close” TO instead of “no”? If this were a novel or a story, we’d need to find out the details, but in a poem, it’s enough to know the emotional repercussions of the no. The way I read it, the implication is romantic, or sexual – I’m imagining a range of questions for which “no” and “almost” and “very very close” are logical but also important answers: Probably not “Do you have enough cash to buy my car?” More like “Are you ready to get married?” or “Do you love me?” or “Do you want to sleep together?” or even “Did you come?” Whatever the question was, her answer changed the relationship forever. If she had told her companion that she was very very close to saying yes, then the no wouldn’t have seemed so final and everything would have been different. We can project a whole series of events that might have followed. We could write this story, though it wouldn’t be as compact or as arresting as the poem is. So while we don’t solve the narrative mystery exactly, the emotional mystery is clarified. We’re in the realm of memory, regret, and curiosity.

This returns me to the previous sentence, the most complicated one and the one that, when I first read the poem, I blew past without retaining a lot. If I’ve referred here to narrative mystery (what’s happening?) and emotional mystery (how does the speaker feel about it?), here we have something more like logical mystery (what’s she saying?). Let’s unpack the sentence and see:

The jury-rig of the undiminished memory,

tripped up by emergency, is the steady

nursing of the conditional – the tedious

combinations of all possible outcomes.

We have an “undiminished memory” that’s been “jury-rigged,” patched together from the materials at hand. Already that’s odd – if the memory is “undiminished” then how has it been “jury-rigged”? The way I understand it, the memory of the fox has been jury-rigged to the emotional memory of the failed relationship. The speaker knows that linking the two episodes is “the steady / nursing of the conditional,” a way to continue wondering about other “possible outcomes.” Even if her imagination keeps finding them “tedious,” she keeps going back, picking the scab.

I’m not sure what emergency “tripped up” the memory again for the speaker, but it’s clear that it’s not the first time, that this disturbing moment with the fox carcass, a memory she cannot push out of her mind, has become linked to the memory of a crossroad summer that could have ended differently. The poem becomes about what can’t be undone – the fox can’t be reanimated, the past can’t be recovered. And now, too, the mistreated fox carcass is irrevocably connected to a woman’s memory of a romantic near-miss, a time when a slight change of tone might have led to a completely different future. Her acknowledgement of the weird artificiality of that linking – the jury-rigging – is the toughest part of the poem to break open, but it is also my favourite moment. It’s the part when the poet emerges to give us a wink about what she’s done.

This is something poems do a lot that fiction rarely does. If it’s true that poems often don’t have time to clarify narrative mystery, and sometimes force us to work awfully hard to understand emotional mystery and even logical mystery, they are much more open to revealing artistic mystery, the acknowledgement of how a poem works. Strong poems like this one are willing to point to their own scaffolding, like a magician who is so good at what she does that she can explain the illusion while she performs it, and we are still amazed. She can’t separate the two memories in her mind, and now, neither can we.